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Stories often have prophecies using convoluted ambiguous phrases, unclear wording, or oddly poetic form. Things like saying "no man may defeat me" only to have the person defeated by a female dwarf, or "The greatest gift of humanity shall be discovered by the one who learns the see the dark lord's true form" and the great power turns out to be falling in love with the dark lord, instead of some powerful magic like every expects.

They don't have to be plays on words, prophecies could simply be so poetic or figurative it's hard to understand their meaning, or leave out important context, or say something is important without saying if it's good or bad etc, the point is there is something about them unclear enough that it's not easy to act on them.

What is a good way to justify these prophecies existing as they do, as opposed a more clear and exact prophecy that is easily understood and more helpful?

I'm looking for more than "A wizard did it." It's not enough that the magic of the world makes it happen this way, why would the magic work in this way? Assume prophecies are not being written by a god or similar all knowing being with the intent of manipulating actions of regular humans. Finally, assume a prophecy is not an absolute prediction of the guaranteed future, how one acts on a prophecy may affect it, if a prophecy says a great army will come from the north and destroy everything you can fortify your north border in hopes of driving the army back and surviving for instance.

Why would humans create prophecies that were so hard to understand, instead of simple prophecies such as "to stop horrible event X just do simple action Y" sort of prophecies?

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    $\begingroup$ "No man of woman born can kill Mcduff" dramatic effect and storytelling. In a narrative it makes sense to mildirect the audience. So, maybe the prophecies are not for the benefit of Mcduff, but for the 3rd party following the events? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 7 '15 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ "Bring balance to the force" ends up meaning two Jedi and two Sith. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 7 '15 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel George Lucas has always declared that was not his intent, and that 'balance' meant the removal of the dark side. Though I admit, I always thought that the world worked much better if you presume they misread the prophecy; especially since they never did get rid of the dark side according the the EU. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 7 '15 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Raphael I agree it's an implausible plot device. However, I disagree with the claim that one should throw up their hands and declare suspension of disbelief any time they want something implausible, books that do this quickly lose my interest as they eventually strain credibility to much. Taking time to help justify, even partially, implausible elements can make a world feel more real. Besides, with so much leeway as writing your own magic system offers I don't think it's impossible to write some decent justifications, I've used one like Rob Watts in a world before that I felt worked well. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 8 '15 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ @AdamDavis This is a question I need solved for me, but is not limited to me and I chose not to go into specifics of my world as too distracting without likely influencing answers. I hardly thing this is to open ended, or that my world specfics would likely change the answer. I already said I like Rob Watts and have used it before in a different world, or something close. It is a good answer that alone can address the problem. That there are many potential good answers does not change the fact that each answer can be a complete answer to the question as posed. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 8 '15 at 17:50

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Through a glass, darkly

The future is hard to see. If it wasn't, then everyone and their dog would be able to do it. To make matters worse, even when you can see the future it isn't a simple matter — it's not like turning on a TV in your mind and choosing the right channel to watch to get the information you need.

There is not one single future that must be, or else prophecy would be guaranteed to come to pass. Instead, there are threads of possibility, tangled together, that merge and split and merge again.

The threads of possibility gather and merge around events that are almost inevitable — the eruption of a volcano or a meteor strike would be easy to see and predict. The threads of possibility divide and separate around events that do not matter and could easily change — a man may wash his clothes in a particular river on a particular day, but any number of events may disrupt that from happening.

When you look into the future, you do not see with your eyes, nor hear with your ears. There may be flashes of images, but it is mostly feelings that will guide you. You will tap into the collective consciousness of the men and women who are experiencing the events. You will fear their terror as the smoke billows and lava flows toward them or as the bright flash from the sky makes the ground shake and fills the sky with dust.

To the novice looking into the future, there is only confusion.

To the expert looking into the future, there is still confusion, but they have learned to ride the waves of the ocean of time. There is much that they do not know, but they are able to catch at least a few fish of value.

As much as you may try to avoid it, your own desires and experiences will color your perception. This is especially true when you look into the future — if you look to see the Dark Lord's downfall, your understanding of it will be colored by that desire.

One person's future is almost impossible to tell. It is only if they touch the lives of many and their decisions may change the course of history that we may have a hope of seeing their future.

Do you know what is frustrating about telling the future to that kind of person? They're the kind of people who are actually going to do something based on what you say. So as you're looking at their future and trying to determine how to actually describe it, the future wriggles around like a live fish in your hands. Eventually you'll find some way to describe it that doesn't cause it to immediately slip out of your grasp, but as often as not it's not going to be as clear as they (or you) would have liked.

Now stop asking me who you should marry. <grumbling>Stupid kids, wasting my time.<grumbling>

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    $\begingroup$ The "confusion" reminds me somewhat of the mechanics of prophecy in The Elder Scrolls. The Elder Scrolls can reveal the future, but without a lifetime of intense training, reading a Scroll will drive you completely insane. Even those with the training (Moth Priests) eventually go blind from the strain of parsing out information from the Scrolls. $\endgroup$ – Era Dec 8 '15 at 21:14
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These kinds of prophecies are basically a form of Security Through Obscurity.

For example, take the famous Tolkien prophecy that you listed:

no man may defeat me

If that was, instead:

I can only be killed by a woman

Then on one hand, yes. That does tell the good guys that they need to use female warriors to beat this guy. The problem is that it also tells the bad guy.

So instead of going through the field of battle like an invincible badass, only to be taken down by a girl with a sword, he instead will specifically watch out for females as threats and take precautions. Like bodyguards or a spell that highlights breasts, even when they're hidden under armor.

So while leaving prophecies vague makes it harder on the good guys, it also makes it harder on the bad guys. Consider your other example:

a great army will come from the north and destroy everything

This may encourage people living north of you to invade! It's prophesied, right? But if it was instead:

And there will come a scourge of destruction from the high mountains that will sweep away all and leave only a remnant of a remnant

That's not as useful for you, for the "build a wall". But it also is less useful for a charismatic warrior who wants to rally thousands of barbarians to join him on a Plunder And Destruction event. I mean sure, they could be a scourge. But so could a giant flood, or a series of storms, or a plague.

Finally, specific prophesies may backfire because it causes you to ignore other threats. Using your "army to the north" example, that might cause your nation to concentrate massive defensive forces in that single direction. Which leads you to get raided and weakened by everyone attacking from the east, west, and south, so eventually you fall to an army from the north that - had you taken a more balanced approach to defense - you might have had a chance to defeat.

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    $\begingroup$ Your last example reminds me quite a lot of playing M2TW, I remember some sieges where I only managed to conquer a castle because I had a random peasant unit open the gates because they walked all the way up to the opposite side of where I placed my main Army. It's pretty much what you described $\endgroup$ – Oak Dec 7 '15 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the mental image of Tolkien's high-and-noble fantasy world coupled with such a spell. $\endgroup$ – Angew Dec 8 '15 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ The Witch-king of Angmar: "Yes, I have a spell that lets me see boobs under clothes, but it's just because of that stupid prophesy, I swear!" $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Dec 9 '15 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyD273: When you put it that way it sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like maybe he's just minding his own business and lets it slip, and the ladies kill him for having the spell. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Dec 9 '15 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ +1! Probably got half your votes because of that boobs spell :-) Though poor Angmar would probably be too busy trying to increase resolution to notice the gal's sword rushing into his... um... heart $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 10 '15 at 12:31
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Two simple reasons come to mind (and both begin with "P" for some reason): plot and plausible deniability.

In stories, the reader wants to see the evolution of the character. When a prophecy is presented early on that indicates such-and-such objective will be achieved (regardless of clarity), the audience already knows that the objective will (almost certainly) be achieved (kind of the point of the story). The story becomes less about the goal and more about the journey to it: seeing how the characters evolve in their personal lives, as characters, and in their understanding of the objective.

Consider reality, though. There have been plenty of people over the centuries who have claimed the end was nigh (there's actually a list!) Not one of these has (yet) come true. However, we can't definitively prove a prediction is wrong until after the event takes place and the prediction wasn't fulfilled. If a prophecy is sufficiently obscure, then an organization can wait until after the predicted event doesn't occur to say, "Oh, he just misinterpreted the signs. This wasn't the predicted day of that prophecy."

Consider the following two prophecies:

"If you wake at dawn on the 8th of December in the 2015th year of the Lord and see a crow perched on your windowsill, you shall know the world's end is that day."

"A dawn shall come when a beauty in black graces your window and speaks of the end."

You can wake up tomorrow and say, for the first one, "Ha! The prophecy was wrong!" But everyone will point out that the second is still perfectly valid for the 9th, 10th, 11th, etc. Additionally, you could mistake the "beauty in black" for a beautiful woman, a handsome man, or a horse and not realize that the inconspicuous crow picking at the apple core on your windowsill was the real harbinger.

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    $\begingroup$ Prophecy also begins with P. Coincidence? I think not. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 7 '15 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ I experienced a plot twist with Prophecies shortly ago. The main Character was told, he has to fall deep and loose a heart in order to achieve his mission. When he was dropped (intentionally) by gripphon on a ship, where an enemy wizard (literally) crushed his heart, which he was able to heal with his magic sword, I thought the prophecy was fulfilled and took a breath, thinking that noone of his companions was meant with heart. But then, later on, he was dropped from another wizard out of great height and crushed on the ground and one of his companions (who loved him secretly) sacrificed $\endgroup$ – Bounce Dec 8 '15 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ herself by pushing herself onto his magic sword, so he could be healed. $\endgroup$ – Bounce Dec 8 '15 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ So you are saying the trick is to say something you are pretty sure will be true? Just like horoscopes. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Dec 9 '15 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Raphael I'd say the trick is to say something that can be true, and to say it in a way that allows people to interpret it in different ways. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Dec 9 '15 at 13:10
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There is a veil between present and future. As with any veil, you can safely make a small pinhole between the threads. Thus you may glimpse the future realm. You will not see much through such a tiny opening, and may not understand all you see. Be grateful for that. If you were to widen that hole too much and see clearly, the veil of time itself would be ripped apart; past, present, and future would swirl irrevocably together and Chaos would be loosed upon the world.

Or as the Sybil sayeth, "Don't push your luck."

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  • $\begingroup$ The metaphor doesn't work well. Consider a keyhole in a door. When I am really close, I can already see a lot of the other side, but when I am further away, this is not so. This dependency is nowhere to be found in your metaphor. $\endgroup$ – Zelphir Kaltstahl Dec 9 '15 at 14:02
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This is more of a suggestion than a comprehensive answer, but I just thought of it and I honestly think it may be the best option:

Telling the future messes up the future.

Think about it: if you go around telling everyone how they're going to die, and from that information they avoid their fates, pretty soon you're going to be living in a world that's completely different than you'd seen. People that were going to be dead are alive now, changing all sorts of things and generally altering destiny. This is bad for business, because now you're going to have to slaughter another goat or drink some more cinnamon-spiced coffee in order to update your visions. If you have to do this for every customer that comes in, not only is it going to cost a lot more money for supplies, but it's probably also dangerous to your health.

Plus, it's very possible that even the act of seeing the future can change things. If you glimpse too much, you may see enough to alter your own actions, thereby causing the very things you saw to not come true. Plus, if there are a lot of other oracles doing the same thing, you could all be interfering with each other, shattering the future into ever smaller possibilities. It's very possible that as far as the future is concerned, the more you know, the less you know, and vice versa.

Now, think about the kinds of prophecies you want: you tell someone something that is technically true (from a certain point of view) based on the little bits of the future you saw, but the knowledge and the customer's corresponding actions don't really have any long-term effects on how things turn out. Individual customers may be less happy, but you're technically still giving them what they want, and it's a lot easier on you and on other oracles. The future remains relatively stable, goat prices remain low, and your colleagues aren't making up prophecies about you being a jerk. Everybody wins (except all the people that die, but really, they would have died anyway, so it's not exactly your fault).

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Even if a divine being issues a prophecy, it just about always comes through a mortal host (i.e. the prophet). Ever hear of the game "Telephone"? That's where you tell one person something, they tell another person, and so on around the room. What you end up with is completely different.

Even with just one person (the prophet), the message is limited by what the prophet can understand, consciously perceive and then write down. We probably receive trillions of pieces of information each second, but consciously focus on the tiniest fraction of that. That's how you can have an event with five witnesses who each have different stories about what happened.

So, the prophet may be left with an overpoweringly strong emotion which blots out key facts. Sort of like how, in literal life or death situations, people get tunnel vision and can miss seeing key details. It's quite reasonable to assume giving a prophecy is like this.

Also, a foretelling of the future can always be the most likely future, based on things at that point. If someone changes his/her mind on something important, that may never come to pass.

Sometimes, prophets enter a trance state to give their prophecies, and that can further muddle their minds. Especially if they take certain opiates to reach this trance state.

Also, some prophets are in the employ of the king/whatever, and may be VERY obviously interested in NOT revealing damaging prophecies, lest they lose their job or even their life.

Basically, even a divinely inspired prophecy must go through humans, and human issues and limitations are the limiting factor, not the divine prophecy.

And divine beings may never WANT to directly intervene with humanity.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the one tidbit about prophets potentially modifying their prophecy to make the king happy. Their personal biases also slanting the prophecy towards what they would prefer is a related potential. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 8 '15 at 19:16
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Many of these prophesies seem correlated to the moral lesson: "be careful what you wish for." Someone wants something so incredibly powerful or impossible that the "powers at be" are willing to engage in wordplay to get around granting it. Such prophesies demonstrate the limitations of language, which can be an important lesson to learn. Much of the interesting parts of life cannot be written down into clean crisp prophesy.

Or perhaps the mage just couldn't be bothered by the young fool who knew not what they were asking for, so gave it to him.

"Will I find it?"
        "Shut up!"
"Will I find it?"
        "Shut up"
"C'mon, you're a wizard! Cast a spell so that I can find it!"
        "No."
"C'mon!"
        "No!"
"Laaaame!"
        "sighs fine..."

  And, in a breath of magic...

        "May you find what you are looking for."

And you have to feel really sorry for the poor sap who convinced a sage to "bless" him with "May you live in interesting times."

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I can think of two reasons. The first works in any story and makes no assumptions on the source. The second is weaker and only works in some contexts.

They are old

We know in our world that languages change significantly over time. If the prophecies are old as in several hundred years at least, they were first written down in a language that nobody speaks anymore. Any version characters in the story can lay hands on has been translated multiple times by people who are not experts in the respective source language (i.e. scholars that learned the dead language but do not really speak it). This process is bound to introduce errors, or at least ambiguities -- as any translation does. Multiple formulations and interpretations exist in the literature.

If the prophecy is very old or comes from a culture without written history, oral traditions may have muddied the phrasing additionally.

There are rules

If your prophecy is to make sense or be "magically binding" in some way, its source is probably some magicky or deific process. As such, there have to be rules.

  • If it's magic the person producing the prophecy probably interprets some flow of raw sensation and creates a text, picture, melody or weave-basket based on it. That is, the product is subject to the person creating it; several people subjected to the same "original" magic prophecy stream will create widely different physical representations.

    If it's a conscious process, art forms or even science may develop around prophecies. Certain patterns are denoted in certain ways in order to avoid ambiguities. Needless to say, any such corpus of rules is subject to change over time, and may be faulty. Also, prophecies probably overlap so one can try to find truth (and rules) by extensive comparative research.

  • If it's gods (or any significantly superior lifeform) that provide the prophecies they are probably bound by some rules (otherwise they can resolve any conflict, anyway, which would make for boring fiction). A classic example is that different gods support different sides and have agreed to not help outright, that is they have to make prophecies cryptic -- as long as they decide to play by the rules.

    Needless to say, in such settings any prophecy may be completely fabricated, designed to trick you, or self-fulfilling by design.

They are bogus

Okay, a third non-reason. Arguably, prophecies are a rather cheap (and overused) plot device. If you want to play on that, maybe prophecies are just what they appear to be in our world: fabrications by enterprising individuals. Intended to provide material for camp-fire stories or pay for next months rent, centuries later they create a huge mess because adherents of one or the other prophet/religion try their best to fulfill or prevent one or the other "prophecy".

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  • $\begingroup$ see, these are great answers :) $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 9 '15 at 21:51
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Bear in mind that the prophet or sibyl is a mouthpiece for an utterly alien, inhuman intelligence. This has several implications:

  1. The intelligence does not entirely understand the human perspective. To It, all time is one instant, so It knows what we call "the future" only as something else in Its total understanding. As a result, the questioner is unable to communicate his question to the intelligence effectively, and the reverse.

  2. The intelligence and the questioner communicate through the clouded mind of another person. In all likelihood, constant direct contact with such intelligences has damaged the prophet's mind. Alternatively, that mind was already damaged, which is why it is open to such contact. Yet again, the process of making the mind function for communication requires deliberate damage. As a result, communication contains a great deal of noise to relatively little signal.

  3. The prophet or sibyl does not know why the questioner is asking the question, and as such, the words don't mean much in themselves. "Will I win the war?" could mean a lot of things (which war, win in what sense, I meaning me personally or my side, etc.). The prophet has to project this question as a kind of total notion to an alien intelligence. The process requires the prophet to enter a trance, in which the conscious mind is significantly suppressed. As a result, the question may or may not be communicated accurately.

  4. The prophet or sibyl may have to work at a remove from the direct contact, through cards, sand-cutting, ink swirls, etc. The process of developing some sort of meaningful correlation between the question and the so-presented objects, qualified by a dim impression of the intelligence's own Presence, produces very problematic results.

  5. If nobody is asking a question, the prophet is simply seized by images, and has no idea to what they might refer. She sees pictures, hears sounds, and tries to describe what she thinks they mean. Others may study her descriptions and try to reformulate them as predictions. But the end-result may well only be comprehensible after the fact.

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A slight variation on a few other answers about the future being unclear, but perhaps the prophesy came to the prophet in a dream. Many people have difficulty remembering their dreams clearly so the result is a vague recollection, open to interpretation. You could also filter this through the psychological / emotional state of mind of the dreamer which warps the visions somewhat in the same way they would affect normal dreams.

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I'd explain it with a lack of knowledge. Maybe the person, who foresaw that future couldn't make out the details and instead they saw imagery, which carries symbolic meaning. They simply take that and express it literally, so interpretation is up to other people, not preinterpreting and because of that limiting what others could interpret. Not taking responsibility for wrong interpretation. I think this makes sense, if you assume, that the person, who foresaw the future is not able to get a complete accurate picture.

Another idea might be that multiple futures are possible and merge into one chaotic vision, which can only be described in a vague way.

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The idea is that future is contingent on your actions, as the prophesier. Luckily, with practice you can begin figuring out how your actions effect the future, but there are still issues.

For example, let's say you look into the future and see some dude serenading the ancient evil. You think that's awesome, so you write down "yo, some dude will totally serenade the ancient evil!" Then you receive a mental push notification. The future has been updated. The ancient evil read your prophecy, and has sworn off men.

Whoops! Luckily, you wrote the prophecy in pencil. You erase it, and the future goes back to normal. Few! But you still want to give the people hope. You write "the ancient evil will be defeated emotionally". Push notification, future changed. You go through some drafts, making changes, and eventually, you write a prophecy that is consistent with the future it causes. You are essentially using brute-force to find a fixed point prophecy, or a prophecy consistent with the future it predicts. The most extreme examples of these are self-fulfilling prophecies, which are not just consistent but actually cause the future they predict.

This also explains why prophecies have such weird writing styles. The writing style also affects the future, so the prophecy writer experimented with different writing styles to get the one they want. This invariably leads to some weird styles.

Note: If you have a problem with the idea of the future morphing or whatever in a timey-wimey fashion (like I do), make sure to emphasis the future as seen by the prophesier is contingent. It is not guaranteed to happen unless the prophesier does not change anything. (Of course, you have to define what you mean by "not change anything". There are different equally valid options.)

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Predictamancy

This is a thing in a webcomic called Erfworld. When you make a prediction, you are using magic to change someone's fate. You are basically spending some energy to create invisible forces and/or entities (it is never made clear) that will work towards making the prediction come true.

The broader the prediction, the more likely it will come true. If you say someone is going to DIAF, then any fire happening at any time will do to make the prediction come true. If you say they are going to DIAF in a castle, it's more restrictive, but still doable. If you say they are going to die from a firebolt fired by some specific person at some specific date in some specific location... The spell may be too costly to cast, or the fate agents involved may just give it up and the spell botches.

Keeping the conditions for prophecy fullfilment broad makes ot easier to cast and does for greater chances of success.

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  • $\begingroup$ Technically that's only the thinkmancer's interpretation of how predictamancy works. Given how certain they were that their magic was the only right one and dismissive they were of all others, and their general other less then stellar decisions, I wouldn't take their view of predictamancy to necessarily be correct, even if a certain someone did manage to die in a fire in the end :P $\endgroup$ – dsollen Feb 5 at 15:14
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My suggestion is that this is the only way for prophecies to be always true while simultaneously allowing people to react to them. It allows people to react to the prophecy and hopefully have it come true in a way that is beneficial to them.

For example, your prophecy says "a great army will come from the north and destroy everything." The receiver of this prophecy can act in a way which will allow the prophecy to benefit him. He could tell his allies who live to the south that they should loop around and when a great army of enemies attacks from the north the even greater army of allies will sneak in behind them and destroy them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe i'm just slow, but I'm not sure I understand your explanation, since I could see a few ways to interpret the first paragraph so I'm not sure which meaning you intended. doesn't the explanation in your second paragraph fulfill the prophecy even after others reacted to it, thus meaning a clear prophecy was true even after others responded to it? I also did clarify that the prophecy doesn't always have to be true (responding to it may change it); but I'm still open to good explanations for prophecy of the always-true variety since I'm looking to collect options for others who may use them $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 8 '15 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen I'm taking this prophecy as an example of an unclear prophecy since it did not come true in the way the plain meaning would suggest. This answer is coming to suggest that reacting to a prophecy can change destiny but cannot change the truthfulness of the prophecy itself. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Dec 8 '15 at 17:02
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One fun idea is the self fulfilling prophesy:

A great warrior named Jon will arise from the people, conquering the oppressors, and shall be crowned king!

The following year a census finds 90% of the boys and 30% of the girls born after the prophesy are named Jon, greatly improving the odds that if someone rises up from the people to conquer the oppressors, they'll be named Jon.

Vague prophesies are great for this kind of thing, since you can take them and twist the meaning to fit whatever ends up happening, so the prophet will always be right.

It's much harder to get a prophesy like "on June 19, at 3:24pm, you will fall down the stairs and perrish" to come true.
Whereas "You will die falling" is much easier, so that when the person has a heart attack and collapses, every one will gasp "Just like the old gypsy woman said!"

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  • $\begingroup$ yes, but does this explain why the prophecy was created the way it was? If magic is somehow foreseeing the future why would it need a self fulfilling prophecy rather then a non-self fulfilling one to be created? From my programmer perspective the former is easier, predicting the current likely future just requires massive knowledge and processing power, predicting how your actions will change the future is not doable by a turing computer (I am such a geek). $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 9 '15 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen The thing with a self fulfilling prophesy is that the event in the future happens because of the prophesy, not because the prophet foresaw what was going to happen. It generally works through positive feedback between belief and behavior. There are a lot of examples in mythology. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Dec 9 '15 at 19:37

protected by Vincent Dec 9 '15 at 16:07

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